The solution you propose will turn people into ‘unthinking robots’

Rob Sams wrote about an important concern he had with our solution. Here’s what he said and my response is below. This is one of the most important comments we have received so far. He is spot on with his concerns. Rob, thank you again for the incredibly important contribution to the conversation.

Rob Sams April 24, 2014 at 2:35 PM

Dayna – you have taken time and effort to reply and respond to the comments made. I look forward to your thoughts after you have read Paul Slovic’s work, I feel this is a very important piece of the pie that you have missed in your research. I expect your whole approach will change once you have read this.

Your approach of “deeply caring about each construction worker going home safely” is admirable; there are a lot of people who get into the safety and risk industry for this reason. My question is why do you feel you can, and that it is your place to ‘fix’ things for others? Please let us make mistakes, let us be free, trial things, and learn. The alternative is that we ‘dumb down’ people, encourage them not to think because the engineering/technology solution will do that for them, and turn people into ‘non-thinking’ robots. That is a world I’d hate to see which is why I am so opposed to your approach.

Matt’s comments about zero harm are spot on. If you want to read another book which will challenge your thinking on this, give Muskowitz’s The Psychology of Goals a crack. You’ll learn about priming and by-products of goals.

If you still hold the view that zero harm is achievable, and appropriate after reading that, then we will have to agree disagree on your approach and I bid you all the best.


Hi Rob Sams,

We have already begun to read Paul Sovic’s works. You are correct in that his ideas contribute significantly to the “pie”. We may even have time to add a few of his ideas (cited, of course) in the big book (out at the end of the year) for technical professionals and visionary leaders. Because the audience is different, we can be a lot more scientific in our writing. I think you will enjoy that book more than this one, which is for workers and frontline supervisors.

We first wrote the book for technical professionals and visionary leaders. But during the innovation process (the big book is an example of stepping people through the innovation process using this topic to demonstrate) we discovered some things that made us realize that we had to write a book for workers and also one for management/owners. They needed the paradigm shift, too. We did a lot of research into the communication strategies needed to engage with construction workers, management, and public policy makers. The one big book became three. We started with the workers, in part because it was the most difficult to write. We had to pare down the information and make it more assessable. In other words, we had to leave out a lot of the supporting technical and scientific supporting information.

Now, on to point TWO: The reason we want to ‘fix’ things for others is because people die. If people were not dying or getting seriously injured, believe me, we would be on to other projects. You make a tremendously important point! And a subtle one that others may miss so I’m going to restate it again. [If] “we ‘dumb down’ people, encourage them not to think because the engineering/technology solution will do that for them, and turn people into ‘non-thinking’ robots.

I am so impressed that you get it so thoroughly, Rob. Okay, so here is the deal. We have to end the deaths and injuries. We can no longer stand it, all of us authors. So we developed a solution, but that solution has real issues that need to be solved and you have just identified one of the most important ones. We bring it up in the book. We even give some things workers can do. The big book contains much more information. But there is not a clear and decisive path to solving that contradiction (safety along with productivity but at the cost of meaningful work for all). So now the question is, do we stop the safety solution until we figure out the other?

I don’t know. We had a stalemate when we voted.

  • One said “Absolutely not. Safety first!”
  • One said, “I’ve seen this happen too many times and it is devastating to the workers. People need jobs, too. It is just as important as the other stuff. We could spend another year and make a better path for workers. Let’s take a little more time and address this issue, too.”
  • My vote was the deciding vote. I voted to move ahead; get started and save lives; build momentum and then deal with the “don’t turn people into ‘non-thinking’ robots” issue once the safety solutions started to roll ahead like a moving train.

But I have fears that we might not catch up once this gets started. Maybe we should have worked for another year on that issue to solve it more thoroughly.

At least we gave the workers a head start. The management book will not be out for another few months. The technical book – the hardcore, how-to book – will not be out until the end of the year. That gives us time to innovate some solutions before the big book is out. We could even delay the big book a few months if we had to in order to address this more thoroughly.  This is not a promise, but an idea worth looking into.

Do you want to help with that?

P.S. Thanks for the suggestion about Muskowitz’s book, “The Psychology of Goals”. You said we would learm more about priming and by-products of goals. This may offer insights into the contradiction that may be invaluable. May I check back in with you after a month or so? It will take me a while to read all of the books people are recommending. In your opinion, do you think this one is more important to read first, before Paul Slovic’s book?  

Still More Comments on the term ‘Zero Harm’

Hi all, Rob Long and Matt made a few more comments.  My response is below theirs.

Rob Long April 23, 2014 at 6:09 PM

Astounding that you have never heard of the world leader in the psychology of risk Paul Slovic, says it all really.

Matt April 24, 2014 at 8:02 AM

Your response truly shows a lack of understanding. So Zero Harm is not really Zero Harm? Your only talking about first aid and higher. But there’s still going to be harm right? So it cant be Zero, which is an absolute term!

Matt April 24, 2014 at 8:19 AM 

So Zero Harm is not really Zero Harm. Maybe you should call it , ‘Just a little bit of harm’! It cant be Zero, which is an absolute term!

Rob Long April 24, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Matt, these guys have no idea but speak the spin of ‘we are not there yet, but we will get there one day’


Rob Long and Matt,
First of all, Rob, risk is not the same as safety. Risk is connected/related to process or lack there-of. Safety is an outcome. Risk is a single piece of the safety puzzle. Paul seems to understand this! His research on decision is valuable (and that topic is also discussed in our book). He is a visionary and we would love to get him involved in construction safety.

We are interested in adding more multidisciplinary sciences to construction safety, making it more process-oriented and systematic and using technology and advanced applied sciences to address hidden causes of accidents. You both, on the other hand, seem to have gotten stuck on a term.

We are talking about saving lives; you are arguing a detail from a stagnant position based on a definition you don’t like. In our book we actually do say we are going to go even further than first aid and we are in pursuit of our stated “ideal” future condition while you seem stuck on the words “zero harm”. You would have to read the book as we talk about ideality to even get the depth of our meaning when we talk about zero harm. We are not using the words lightly; nor is it an absolute term as you claim. The fact that you said that shows you are working from the old paradigm.

I’ll say this again. We suggest using a parado principle; each company goes after their most important issues first – like deaths from falls. Then they may solve for death and injuries from pinch/moving equipment; then language-related problems; and so on until they are eliminating bruises and cuts or beyond. Some companies might be interested in solving for violence on the job first or begin with fraud (for example, the person who hurts himself on purpose to collect benefits). I very much doubt anyone will begin with bruises and cuts as you suggest. But just because they begin in one place and continue on their own custom path until they hit the ideal goal of no harm, does not mean you dismiss outright the whole body of work or resort to name-calling.

Although your comments have degraded and are no longer even an attempt at a professional discussion, it is a pattern I’ve seen before. When there is a major paradigm shift beginning, there are those who see the value immediately. Those are the ‘early adopters’. Based on a quick review of his work, Paul Slovic fits this description exactly. He was doing this kind of work in the early 70’s in other industries. This is obviously not you, however, as you are not even interested in reading the book before dismissing it and that is a very common entrenched position.

Once a lot of other people have begun to create the change we speak about, you will feel comfortable enough to find where you fit in and can add value. In the language of diffusion of innovation/ technology/etc., this is called ‘early majority’ (or maybe even ‘late majority’) as opposed to ‘early adopters’.

Our work is a safety breakthrough and can be uncomfortable for people who have carved a niche for themselves and don’t want things to change too much. Although we have compassion for the angst it is causing you, we are really more interested in speaking to people who are serious about defining and solving the problems rather than people who don’t want to change. One of our favorite quotes is by Robert J. Mathews, “If you don’t think something can be done, at least get out of the way of the person doing it.”

Ditch the name-calling. Keep sending names like Paul Slovic. Get more precise with your negativity so we can problem-solve together. Then there is a lot for us to do to save lives.

For Paul Slovic’s name, I really thank you. We chose to study different, equally preeminent experts in several multidisciplinary sciences, but would love to have people of his caliber work on this problem. In fact, we are dancing in his neighborhood. We are looking for just these kind of experts to add to the conversation and advance the goal. We have only proved it is possible and given one path to the goal, but we don’t have all the answers that are out in the world or those yet to be discovered. It may be too big a problem for any single person, but it is a problem worthy of solving. We’ve started the ball rolling. We can get there with the correct people. Come on; take a reasonable risk. Step out of the comfort of the current paradigm and see that there is more possible than is currently being done.

Second Answer to Matt

Hi Matt. Thank you again for bringing up another comment. I can appreciate your skepticism and I really love that it is so precise. That is exactly what is needed when solving problems with innovation – precisely bringing up issues that seem to be unaddressed or wrong. Let’s start with Matt’s comment first and then I will answer.

Matt commented on New Book–Safety Under response to riskex:

 Oops, what do you know, I made a spelling mistake! I clearly meant ‘learning’! What do you propose to stop me making that mistake again Dayna? I really do think it purely a money making exercise. So deluded!

I think that in this case an analogy will be most useful. There is already a tool that begins to address spelling mistakes in WordPress and most word processing software. The tool began as a spell checker decades ago, but its usefulness has evolved to the point it can recognize grammar issues and more. It underlines words so you can see that the checker thinks you made a mistake and in some cases of very common issues (like spelling “the” as “hte”) it just automatically fixes the problem. You can run spell check before sending an email. You can choose to set your default so it automatically checks before sending an email, etc.

If we had a systematic view of “accidents” like a word processor has a systematic view of spelling errors, then we could put in an accident checker at every project site. It could fix some things automatically, it could inform safety professionals of potential problems (like an exposed cord someone could trip over or icy ladder steps or …). Technology to do this is out there in the world. University students are developing smart sensors and there is simulation software and processes, tools, and technologies as described in the book. Everything a spell checker can do, can also be done in this industry. Mistakes can be caught and fixed.

But, and here is one of the most difficult issues to solve, you still made a mistake – even though you knew better. Or you didn’t pay attention when the checker prompted you and you performed the work and it was delivered with a flaw. That flaw was caused by a person and the oversight system didn’t work perfectly. That is your point, correct?

Well, that is not so hard of a problem to solve conceptually. We just need a better checker. One that is more intelligent than Microsoft Word has developed. One that has a better expert system to draw upon. One that knows and automatically addresses more commonly made mistakes. One that has a more obnoxious clarion call when you make a mistake. One that makes it impossible for you to proceed without fixing it. None of these things are even inventive solutions; they just need someone to perform the work and present it to the world. These are all just incremental improvements. But we would not be at this stage and talking about how to make it even better if software developers had not already started with the concepts and worked to make them viable decades ago.

That is what we need to do now in the field of construction safety. We need to begin to create these “safety checkers” in our industry. And let me be clear. Safety checkers are not magic bullets that will solve all problems. But it is a good start to solving this kind of construction safety problems.

There is so much money to be made by doing the things we suggest in the book. But instead of patenting the ideas and moving forward with building new companies and products, we put this out into the world for everyone to begin to work on. That way it will get finished sooner and more lives will be saved.

There are ideas for new types of ladders in the big book. There are social solutions and technology solutions and software solutions and wireless solutions, new tools, new methodologies, and new communications strategies.  There are … well, hundreds of money making ideas for ANYONE who wants to take them and run. If we wanted this to be “purely a money making exercise” then I promise you we would not have given away the information on how to make millions (maybe billions) for the price of a book.  What we want, Matt, is to save lives. That has to begin before it can be improved. Maybe the first products will only do part of the job; but they will save some lives. Those projects and their financial success will simulate other people to make improvements and others to build new and better products because now people are thinking of the problems in new ways.

We are only three people. Hundreds need to participate in the vision or develop a better future and begin to work towards it with practical real solutions. We are offering this as thought leaders out into the world to light a fire and create a call to action. We hope you and other deep thinking people will refine on the ideas and save lives at  exponentially greater numbers. We don’t have all of the answers, but we could if we just take the next step and then the next and if we think about the “impossible to solve problems” in new ways and with greater responsibility. We have gone far enough to prove that it is now possible. It will take a dedicated commitment from many, many people to refine and bring it to life.

I hope I answered your question in a not too theoretical manner. If you have more comments, I sincerely welcome them, Matt. You bring up good points and are helping to shape the conversations in important ways. Thank you. I absolutely mean that!!!

Are you “anti zero harm” language?

Been getting a bit of feedback from people who are sick of the term “zero harm”.
In fact, I am with them – if we are talking about the old way of doing things. It really irritates me when folks talk about zero harm and they plan on getting there by fudging the definitions of incidents and accidents or by ignoring the reality of the situation. I also get annoyed when people are just cheerleading and I find it really maddening when people use terms like “Safety First” and it is imprecise, misleading or “fuzzy”.
I recognize that my most fervent allies are eventually going to be people who are against this kind of fuzzy language. They have passion for keeping people safe and a low tolerance for bull and that is what it is going to take to move this new mindset forward into the mainstream.  
There is a is a basic contradiction between production, schedule, and profits (get ‘er done fast) and get ‘er done safe. That’s the truth. Anyone not directly facing that issue is not going to solve the problem. That’s the real bottom line. Fast and Safe are both are valid positions if you want to be competitive (personally, I think Quality should be in there, too). In fact, that basic trade-off between production efficiencies and safety has been happening for thousands of years.
What we found is: the best way to resolve that “compromise” mindset is to figure out how to make safety the leverage point into increased profits. If it is actually more profitable and easier to work safely, then we can make progress on this issue. No one wants to leave money on the table and no one wants people to die on their projects. It is a natural pairing – if we could only find the solutions. The solutions we found are like building blocks. We did not find a magic bullet to cure all the problems at one time. But there is a way, a path, a series of steps. It will take time and work, but it is possible.
But to get started, we have to do away with the rotten foundation that underlies the current belief system. It really boils my blood when I hear excuses for trading off safety for schedule. Those rationalizations are based on false information. But this new information is not false. It is not “fuzzy”. It is stark, transparent, and no-holds-barred. We can get to zero harm. We just have to begin now.

Why Safety Professionals have to go beyond being the Squeaky Wheel

a safety professional wrote a comment in response to Sandy Smith’s article, “Former President of Chemical Company Sentenced for Federal Crimes Related to Employee Deaths” on

Mr. Westley said, “As Safety Professionals we have to be the squeaky wheel. We have understand how to communicate the consequences of bad /unsafe actions to the next level leadership. The people that follow us are counting on it.”

And he is absolutely correct, but that is just the first step in a countermeasure for safety.

In our safety book co-authors Brion K. Hanks and Scott Burr join me in saying, “In regards to the unspoken cold war between production and safety, we have noticed that some industry leaders are expending enormous amounts of activity with relatively minor new achievement. Safety as a discipline needs an upgrade and a reboot. The result of this delusion (that activity equals achievement) is that people are routinely hurt and killed on the job…
…One of the reasons we succumb to trading-off safety for schedule or profits is because management and ‘designers’ throw problems over the wall instead of taking full accountability for what they create. All of this ‘tossing off of responsibility’ lands squarely on the worker in the field in bad weather with pressures and dangers all around. This is the worst place to try and solve problems that should have been solved upstream….” Safety needs to be more systematic.

Here’s one more point. Safety professional often rely on OSHA or other safety inspections as the great countermeasure to unsafe situations. But this needs to change. “Inspections can detect mistakes only after they have been generated (or when they are in the process of being made). Inspections are not predictive. They are not systematically integrated into decision-making and they are not scientific. They catch infractions; but don’t stop hazards from being created in the first place. They are better than nothing, but mistakes will be made because there are not enough inspectors to be everywhere at all times and no human can be 100-percent vigilant… Inspections will not assure that your workers are safe. In fact, inspections are the lowest form of assurance that can be provided. In order for inspections to be effective, they would have to be constant, omnipresent, vigilant, and redundant. But they are not constant; they cannot be omnipresent; and it is too costly to be 100-percent vigilant and redundant… Because inspections are countermeasures they are an ongoing cost. However, if you generate real safety solutions this savings is the money that you get back from that investment. If you develop these solutions it helps your company be more efficient and will keep your workers safer.”

Along the same lines, speaking up, “whistle blowing”, sounding off about safety issues is important. In fact, it’s vital! And I applaud you because you have the courage of a lion and your heart is in the correct place. Having said that, it is a tiny part of what safety professionals can be doing today. Most people are entrenched in the belief that safety is in the way of production and that is simply not true. Industries need to completely change their mindset. In fact, safety can become THE KEY (the leverage point) for greater construction profits and schedule performance.

Go forth and be safe and productive all at the same time.